Roy Storm of ALM broke the news early this week that Casey Flaherty, owner of the consulting firm Procertas and former GC of Kia along with legal pundit Jae Um will join the legal bemouth, Baker McKenzie. They will join recently added David Cambria, affectionately called the “Godfather of legal operations,” in an effort, according to the firm, to  “reengineer the delivery of legal services.”

When I first heard the news, I was reminded of (and tweeted out) the question posed to Winston Churchill: “Sir, are you ready to meet your maker?” Sir Winston’s response: “Yes but is he ready to meet the likes of me?” And that’s the big question here.

Cambria, Flaherty and Um stand at the forefront of legal innovation and advocate the use of technology and innovation to radically change the practice of law, including but not limited to (as us lawyers like to say), models that reward efficiency over billable hours. But more than that, these three are well known for storming the gates of legal complacency and challenging the traditional in no uncertain terms. Its not by chance that one of Flaherty’s most well known pieces is entitled On Law Firm Marketing Bullshit.

All three have a low tolerance for bullshit.

All three are intelligent, articulate and have a low tolerance for bullshit. Believe me I’ve been called out more than once by Flaherty at least: most of the time he was right.

Baker McKenzie, on the other hand, would appear to be a first blush the epitome of big law. Well established. The largest law firm in the U.S. Its 2018 revenue was reported to be almost $3 billion. It has 78 offices in 47 countries. It has 4700 lawyers. It could very well fit the picture Richard Susskind had in mind when said, “it is hard to convince a room full of millionaires that they got their business model all wrong.”

Baker is putting together a super team of legal innovators to attack the very fundamentals of the biglaw business model.

But here Baker is putting together a super team of legal innovators to attack the very fundamentals of the biglaw business model. As David Cowen of the Cowen Marketing Group, himself a pretty astute (and outspoken) observer of the innovation culture (or lack thereof) in biglaw, recently put it in a LinkedIn post about this move, Baker McKenzie is “making significant investments in people, process and technology-in an effort to distance themselves in the race to the top.”

And a second look at Baker and its history suggests that they may just succeed. Baker in fact has a history of innovation that I didn’t know still I started reading:

  • The firm was founded by Russell Baker who was bilingual and served Chicago’s Mexican American community.
  • The firm was one of the firs international firms, opening an office in Caracas in 1955.
  • Baker hired local lawyers for their international offices and had an aggressive program for integrating them into the firm
  • Baker was one of the first firms to adopt a functioning outsourcing operation and launch ancillary business.
  • In 1999, Baker elected its first woman leader. Globally some 40% of its lawyers are women and 30% of its partners are.
  •  Even though it is the largest firm in the U.S., its present chair practices in London.

Baker is used to doing things a little differently.

So, Baker is used to doing things a little differently. But bringing in Cambria, Flaherty and Um is a pretty radical step both because of their stature but also their outspokenness. The move raises several questions:

  • Can and will Baker’s leadership push through the inevitable radical changes the three will propose?
  • Is Baker will to make changes that may not have the same immediate ROI that the members are used to?
  • Finally and perhaps most importantly are Baker and its members willing to listen to, respect and give equal weight to what 3 radical non practicing, non equity members are saying and will it integrate their ideas?

The answers to these questions will be fascinating. If Baker and the three succeed, other law firms will no doubt follow and could change the upper tiers of big law forever. On the other hand, the brash and swagger of the three may not sit well with the firm and its leadership especially when they espouse the new and different.

What will happen? I think one of two things: the partnership will work and flower and produce a different biglaw culture. Or it will blow apart in less than a year. Stay tuned what could be the biggest story in legal innovation in 2019.


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